Outside the Suvarnabhumi airport in Bangkok, the rain drops falling on the gigantic statute of Buddha were producing a comforting sound. There was silence in the smoking room and it was same in the Thai Airways plane as well.
As I looked around the aircraft was full of Japanese expatriates, working mainly in South East Asian countries. It was the time when their country needed them and they were going back. There were no foreign tourists. It was the first glimpse of what was to be expected in Japan, which is trying to wriggle out of the devastation wrecked by the recent earthquake, tsunami and nuclear fallout at the Fukushima nuclear power plant.
As the plane landed at Kansai International Airport I was scared and nervous. I was here to help in organizing the “Building A Better Asia Retreat”, which brings together young Asian leaders to discuss contemporary threats facing Asia. The Retreat had been given go ahead after much deliberations. Here in Nara, there was no sign of any chaos despite Japan facing one of the worst tragedies in its history.
Nara city had celebrated its 1300th anniversary last year as Nara Heijo-kya capital, the first capital of Japan. Located almost at the centre of the Japanese archipelago, Nara is an inland prefecture, surrounded by Osaka to the west, Kyoto to the north, Wakayma to the south and Mie to the east. It has a total population of 1.4 million. Approximately 60 percent of the prefecture is covered by forests. Its main industries are textiles, timber, fur and leather. It is said that Nara is the birthplace of Japan as a nation.
On the first day at the conference I found myself sitting in front of two men who have somewhat changed the political discourse in their respective countries. Surin Pitsuwan, former deputy foreign Minister of Thailand, now the Secretary General of ASEAN and Dato’Seri Anwar Ibrahim, leader of the reform oriented opposition coalition, Pakatan Rakyat and former deputy prime minster of Malaysia.
The March 11 earthquake and tsunami is now known to have killed more than 15,280 people, while nearly 8,500 remain unaccounted. Japan’s nuclear safety agency had also said meltdowns took place in three reactors more quickly than earlier believed. It had damaged the reactor number 2 after 80 hours, and the number 3 reactor 79 hours after the tsunami knocked out the plant’s cooling systems. Around 26 hours after the earthquake, an explosion in reactor number 1 at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station destroyed one of the buildings. The cooling systems at another plant, Fukushima Daini, were also compromised but the situation there seemed to be less precarious. More than 200,000 residents were evacuated from areas surrounding the power facilities.
Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan termed the earthquake, tsunami, and the situation at nuclear reactors as the “worst crisis (in Japan) in the 65 years since the war.” The government called in 100000 troops to aid in the relief effort. The deployment is the largest since World War II.
On the outskirts of the Osaka a large makeshift tent had come up. It looked like the same German made tent which was used, and had become famous in Afghanistan, for holding the first loya jirga (grand council) after the fall of Taliban. But the only difference being in Kabul commanders of Northern Alliance were fighting for seats in the front row and here sound of a pin dropping could be heard.
Outside the tent, there was a straight line of shoes with not even a single shoe tripping over the other. The distribution of food by the volunteers was so orderly that it looked like a buffet at a Western weeding.
Back in Nara the Todaiji Temple, which is on the World Hertiage list, has various pavilions and halls, including many designated as national treasures of Japan. Among these, the “Daibutsudan Hall” is one of the world’s largest wooden buildings and the home of the popular “Great Buddha of Nara”. The statue is 15 meters tall and weighs around 380 tones. A woman who had traveled all the way from her home which was just twenty five kilometers from Fukushima along with her two sons was crying at the temple. Her husband has gone missing since the earthquake. I could see tears falling on the giant foot of the black colored Buddha looking at the sky.
I looked outside to avoid seeing the tears and pain. I have seen lot of pain and tears on faces of my people back home. I don’t want to see these anymore. As I looked outside, the temple has five straight lines of marble tiles from the entrance to the statue. Centuries ago Buddhist monks brought these from five different countries including India.
The governor of the Nara Prefecture is Shogo Arai, when I met him I did not expect him to know anything about Kashmir. To my surprise governor had come to Kashmir in 1990 and said he felt the pain and the suffering “but sometimes people don’t want peace”.
I left Japan with a strong impression of the resilience of the Japanese people who see tragedies every year and have known to overcome them.
(Sameer Yasir is Assistant professor at the Centre for International Peace and Conflict Studies at Islamic University of Science and Technology.)